Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Walls to have ears

In line with what AC said at the Labour Humanists / DH meeting in Bournemouth.

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green; highlights in blockquotes (yellow).

AC Grayling

We are already a over-surveilled society: new measures to add microphones to CCTV cameras are a quantum step in the wrong direction.

November 6, 2007 11:00 AM

It is by now a familiar fact that there are more CCTV cameras keeping watch in Britain than in any other country in the world, even in the worst police states. In one way this is an unexceptionable fact, because it could be argued that cameras take the place of policemen on the beat, and far more effectively, thus ensuring public safety and providing a useful adjunct both to the prevention of crime and its punishment.

But it is also a fact that there are a number of ways that CCTV footage can be misused, or lead to serious error.
None are hard to imagine. In the capital of the free world, the US, individuals were for decades tracked and monitored, and their communications eavesdropped upon, not because they were known terrorists or criminals, but because of their political views and trade union affiliations: this happened from the late 1940s through the McCarthy, civil rights and Vietnam eras, until it eventually sparked a constitutional debate in the 1970s. The difference between the US and the former Soviet Union in this respect, vanishingly small while the police snooped on political "undesirables", was that public outcry and political activism in the former brought a (temporary - until the advent of George W Bush) halt to sneaking and prying by the state on its citizens.

Consider, then, the fact that some police forces in the UK are now considering adding microphones to CCTV cameras in our streets so that they can not only watch what people are doing, but overhear what they are saying. This is a quantum step from surveillance of the public domain shared by the community to monitoring of the utterances and thereby thoughts and opinions of individuals.

Extraordinarily, it seems that the difference between the public presence of people in shared space and the privacy of their utterances and thoughts is not even being considered here. The parallel to eavesdropping on people's conversations is putting CCTV cameras inside their houses. I take it that at least most of us would object very strongly to the latter, even if in half a dozen houses round the realm some crazed fanatics were making bombs in their living rooms.

The claims of security are too readily allowed to override those of civil liberty. As James Madison said, "The means of defence against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home." That is why, even in times of danger, one of the truest of commonplaces is that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Read Studs Terkel on surveillance in the USA, and compare today's situation to the one described by EM Forster in his "Liberty in England", a speech given to the Congrès Internationale des Écrivains at Paris in 1935, when the world was sliding into the abyss of war. (I've quoted this speech before; its relevance to today makes it cry out for frequent iteration.) He acknowledged the threat posed by the fascist dictators, and then warned of a different, home-grown threat that was in effect the shadow-image of the external threat:

"we are menaced [internally] by what I might call 'Fabio-Fascism,' by the dictator-spirit working quietly away behind the facade of constitutional forms, passing a little law (like the Sedition Act) here, endorsing a departmental tyranny there, emphasising the national need for secrecy elsewhere, and whispering and cooing the so-called 'news' every evening over the wireless, until opposition is tamed and gulled. Fabio-Fascism is what I am afraid of, for it is the traditional method by which liberty has been attacked in England. It was the method of King Charles I - a gentleman if ever there was one - the method of our enlightened authoritarian gentlemen today. This Fabio-Fascism is our old enemy, the tyrant ..."

and then Forster quoted Kipling:

"All we have of freedom, all we use or know,
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.
So they bought us freedom - not at little cost;
Wherefore we must watch the King, lest our gain be lost.
He shall mark our goings, question where we came,
Set his guards about us, as in freedom's name.
He shall peep and mutter, and the night shall bring
Watchers 'neath our window, lest we mock the King."

Surveillance, ID cards, peeping and muttering, reading emails and taping phone calls, eavesdropping on the public as it goes about its daily business, all constitute guards under our windows indeed, and all "in Freedom's name". As Forster remarked, "How well Kipling put it!", anticipating as he did the Orwellian logic of protecting our liberties by taking them away.

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